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Sunday, December 12, 2010
Heat come home licking their wounds

By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com

Miami Big 3
The Heat's current slide feels less dire than the team's early struggles. But there's still work to do.

CHICAGO -- The last time the Heat were carrying a three-game losing streak, their coach was under public fire, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade didn't look as though they were meshing at all and the team was barely in one of the Eastern Conference's playoff positions.

There were no such feelings this time around as the Heat headed home from a road trip that turned disappointing after three consecutive losses, including a 99-96 setback to the rival Bulls on Saturday night. Unlike in November, when the Heat were barely above .500, the situation has tangible reasons, including injuries to James and Chris Bosh. And unlike two months ago, there are a few positives coming out of the losses.

Not everything is peachy. The Heat have areas they must address, with the challenging Hawks coming to Miami on Tuesday. But some positives from the past several games actually may have the team better off in some ways than before the losing streak began.

"I'm proud of my team," Wade admitted in defeat Saturday after his 33 points weren't enough against Derrick Rose's heroics. "You look at some of the things the guys did with Chris going down and LeBron, that is what we need when those guys get back in the lineup, to have that confidence."

By "guys," Wade means the Heat's bench, which has been inconsistent at best and unhelpful at worst recently. One way to look at the Heat is that they pretty much have three starters -- Wade, James and Bosh -- and nine role/reserve players on any night. This theory is extended because coach Erik Spoelstra routinely alters his rotation based on the opponent with some players logging big minutes one night after not even playing the previous game.

LeBron James
Getting LeBron James healthy is item No. 1 on the Heat's agenda.

Even when the Heat were winning, the bench was often sluggish. In their last win, a week ago in Portland, the "reserves," including starters Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Carlos Arroyo, combined for just 11 points in a 107-100 overtime win.

So seeing Mike Miller score eight points off the bench and Eddie House put up 13 against the Bulls after both played well in garbage time during a loss to Denver had the Heat finding some positives.

Miller was shooting just 7 (yes, 7) percent before the fourth quarter in Denver in his three weeks after returning from a thumb injury. House, who hadn't played in nearly a month, has averaged 14 points in the past two games.

"I give my team credit for fighting," Wade said. "We got great bench production, and that was something we needed and had been lacking."

That is something the Heat hope they carry over into a softer portion of schedule after playing 15 of their past 21 games on the road. Something they want to halt, though, is lapses in their defense.

In December, the Heat had a 16-game streak of holding opponents to fewer than 100 points, a central reason they ripped off 21 wins in 22 games before the latest three-game slide. The Heat have allowed opponents to crack 100 five times in the past nine games, and the Bulls were just one point short of it on Saturday.

During the three-game losing streak, the Heat are giving up 118.1 points per 100 possessions on 50 percent shooting -- a far cry from the numbers in December, when they ranked among the league's most efficient defenses.

Pick-and-roll defense and opponents' dribble penetration have gotten so problematic at points that Spoelstra has been forced to play stretches of zone defense the past two games.

"I felt helpless, I had nothing else and had to throw a prayer out there," Spoelstra said. "When we get back to Miami, we need to take this to heart. We've had some slippage defensively, and that pain the last three games has to wake us up. That has to be enough to get us make a change or the result probably won't change."

Spoelstra believes that a rededication to effort and teamwork, things that should be within the team's control, can restore the Heat's defensive edge. And he plans to focus on it in the coming days of workouts.

The other major issue affecting the team is rebounding. After lead rebounder Udonis Haslem went down, the Heat seemed to collectively band together to make up for his loss. During their 12-game win streak in December, they were outrebounded only twice, and it allowed them to create fast-break and second-chance opportunities.

During the five-game road trip, they were walloped on the glass, outrebounded by a total of 24 boards. The Bulls racked up 25 second-chance points Saturday, including Kyle Korver's 3-pointer with 25 seconds left that decided the game after an offensive rebound.

The Heat are now 8-9 in games in which they have been outrebounded this season. With just 12 losses, it is clear that is an issue the team needs to clean up.

"Not being able to finish plays on the glass, that hurts us; it has been a notable trend all season long," Spoelstra said. "The ball is in the air, and we're not winning the battles. We'll gather ourselves and get back to our Miami Heat identity."

With just two games in 11 days and the most practice time since training camp, the Heat will address those concerns in addition to getting the ailing left ankles of James and Bosh healthy.

"We've been having some lulls throughout the game and we need to clean it up," Wade said. "That is what good teams do."